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“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas.” ~Terence McKenna
Escaped from academia, exploring, and immersed in research of radically different cultures than mine, I found that the what of things is much less important than the how of them when solving problems in the actual world.
Take, for instance, water. That it is “an odorless, tasteless, very slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O” is far less important in my everyday life than how it functions to quench my thirst on a long, hot hike. Or, my name is certainly a what of me — Cathy B. Glenn (she/her)— but the name is much less important than how I move through the world as a privileged straight white cis female human in relation with others on a shared planet.
When the aim is cultural change, the same is true about understanding culture in the actual world: defining the what of a culture is much less important than understanding the how of its functions.
Although efforts to define culture have grown an academic industry to discuss permutations endlessly, we are not interested in engaging those conversations — beyond a familiarity with them — for democratic cultural work on the ground. We simply do not have time to wait for academics — who have been mostly silent, holed up arguing amongst themselves in an ivory tower for four years — to make relevant and urgently needed good ideas accessible and usable.
Instead, our current level of cultural crises is an undeniable call to action using the ideas and tools we have now. Human rights emergencies that have existed for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, poor, working class, and other marginalized humans since the founding of our country are a call to action now. And, severely dysfunctional human cultures destroying the planet and exterminating other animals at a pace never before seen in human history call us to act now.
Growing a radically healthy democratic (power-sharing) relational culture in the U.S. requires actually accessible and applicable knowledge and sense-making tools to create the enabling conditions for change.
Although the white American Left claim cultural work for themselves, Black Americans first employed cultural work practices in the U.S. The lingering ravages of American slavery produced the first wave of Black U.S. cultural workers:
African American cultural workers developed a variety of ethical practices to cope with the simultaneous truths that American capitalism seemed unwilling to fully temper its desire for hateful grotesques, and that survival requires earning a paycheck.
Cultural workers since have focused on a vast array of social justice concerns. Audre Lorde organized a protest of poets and raised money to pay an activist’s bail. Liz Ogbu uses her architecture and design background to advocate for equitable access to urban physical space as a basic human right. Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Augusto Boal employed pedagogy in the service of cultural work, both inside and outside of formal classrooms. And, young activists currently collaborate in the U.S. to use theater and performance to challenge and change oppressive cultural norms.
In each case, however, culture is understood as an urban phenomenon. Indeed, cities are often situated — by academics, journalists, and Hollywood storytelling — at the center of American culture. That pervasive urban theoretical and social bias has all but eviscerated any considerations of culture as it relates to rural Americans, and it has been a grave mistake.
Authoritarian Practices in Rural American Cultures
Open Cultures Grow Democratic Norms
Cultural conditions — like those that enabled a violent, mostly white “militia” insurrection on the Capitol — have existed for decades on the ground in Rural American Cultures (RAC), largely ignored by elites. Those conditions now require our urgent attention.
What exactly is cultural work? The Relational Democracy Project’s cultural work concerns are primarily functional rather than theoretical, and they are focused on understanding and re-shaping non-democratic cultural practices and norms in Rural American Cultures (RAC). This basic focus has not been addressed in any comprehensive way in any literature or scholarship.
Welcome to The Relational Democracy Project
Working to Make our Everyday Relations More Democratic
Since there is no body of literature from which we can build, we’ll begin at the beginning with a LiveScience definition of culture: “culture derives from a French term, which in turn derives from the Latin colere, which means to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivation and nurture.”
Culture, in this fundamental sense, is also radical:
“Radical was first an adjective, borrowed in the 14th century from the Late Latin radicalis, itself from Latin radic-, radix, meaning ‘root.’
…None of this will surprise the botanists: they know that radical leaves grow from the base of a stem or from a rootlike stem, and radical tubers grow from a plant’s root. And linguists know that a verb’s radical form is its root form. In medicine, radical surgery is surgery that’s designed to remove the root of a disease.
In a radically relational universe, culture functions in relations between humans, and those relations are the root of everything. For instance, the root cause of the fragility of our democratic processes and systems is the imbalanced human power relations that overwhelmingly show up in our practices.
(American racism is a form of authoritarianism. So is classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism. Each has as its core feature an imbalanced power relation. Each imbalanced relation functions in racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist practices that are entrenched in systems and processes and also present, relationally, between individual human beings.)
Changing our relational practices is key to balancing the power between us in order to grow the relational culture necessary to repair and strengthen our democratic processes and systems.
Democratic cultural change cannot happen, however, unless human social conditions enable forward momentum and progress. Specifically, for cultural change to occur, healthy enabling conditions must be present for growth.
Think of democracy as a tree with its roots in human cultural conditions. In order for that tree to grow healthy and strong, the human social soil in which it is planted needs to be nourishing and supportive.
In other words, democratic ecosystems are most healthy and abundant when the social soil in which they grow — the cumulative cultural effect of individual relational practices and norms — is also healthy.
We Voted out a Tyrant to Save our Fragile Democracy: Now What?
Embodying Balance in our Relations by Proliferating Everyday Democratic Practices
RDP’s democratic cultural work is not about rescuing rural Americans, nor is white saviouring a driver. RDP is not interested in economics or imposing policy or anything else from the top. Politics is decidedly not RDP’s mode of change. The cultural work is not about votes or voting, not about political organizing or political parties, and not about candidates or issues.
Instead RDP’s democratic cultural work is about problem-solving, and it grows from original in-field research, is pre-political, and starts on the ground of rural cultures.
Democratic cultural work is about digging our hands into rural social soil; it’s about understanding its relational composition; the work is about tilling to make the social soil healthier by modeling power-sharing practices; and, it’s about adding nutrients in the form of relationally democratic practices that can grow into norms. RDP’s democratic cultural work is about creating rural spaces to rehearse what it means to embody democracy in a variety of modes, every single day.
RDP’s 5 Elements of Democratic Cultural Work
The Relational Democracy Project is a start-up for an industry that can rebuild the relational infrastructure of our democratic culture by creating enabling conditions for the proliferation of human power-sharing practices.
- Democratic cultural work begins with power. Power is a relation (a living connection) between humans, and it is central in all of our relations with one another.
10 Data-Based Relational Principles of Power
A Series: Building A Relational Frame for Creating Democratic Practices in a Capitalist Culture
Power functions for individual humans as the ability to generate and maintain forward momentum, and our momentum (power) is always in relation with others’ power. All RDP’s cultural work efforts are framed by relational principles of power.
2. Democratic cultural work focuses on balancing human relations. Relations are the basis of change in the universe, and addressing the health and growth of human relations focuses attention on the roots of changing culture.
Cathy B. Glenn, A middle way: Process philosophy and critical communication inquiry - PhilPapers
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Power relations between humans function on a spectrum, from perfectly balanced to severely imbalanced. Relations that tend toward a perfect balance function as democratic and are healthiest for humans. Relations that are intended to be severely imbalanced, to varying degrees, function as authoritarian and are least healthy, even lethal, for humans. RDP’s democratic cultural work aims toward balanced human relations.
3. Democratic cultural work focuses on changing practices. Power moves between us in our practices, and changing our practices shifts the balance of power in our relations.
Both democratic and authoritarian processes, systems, and regimes are constituted by our human relations and embodied in human practices. Indeed, power relations that manifest in practices are the human basis on which democratic processes and systems either succeed or fail.
What authoritarianism is ... and is not:∗ a practice perspective
No reader of political commentary in recent years could fail to notice a concern, perhaps even a panic, about a global…
The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is the human commitment to share power in everyday practices. RDP’s democratic cultural work is practice-centered.
4. Democratic cultural work aims to reduce fear. Human fear comes in a surprising variety of flavors: fear of change, of authority, of punishment, of invisibility, and of being left behind. Fear can cause us to fight, flee, or freeze. Fear diminishes creativity, destroys a sense of trust, and blowtorches any feeling of well-being — all necessary democratic enabling conditions to grow healthy humans and cultures.
The politics of fear: How fear goes tribal, allowing us to be manipulated
Fear is arguably as old as life. It is deeply ingrained in the living organisms that have survived extinction through…
Cultures inundated with fear are also rife with adaptive power-stealing (authoritarian) practices. Instead, when there is an absence of fear, healthy forward momentum is possible. Trust can grow, creativity is allowed to blossom, and well-being is nourished. RDP’s cultural work grows these enabling conditions, in which democratic practices are allowed to proliferate and grow into norms.
5. Democratic cultural work is radically inclusive of the earth and her creatures. The root of imbalanced human power relations is our (mostly white) human species’ fundamentally authoritarian (power-stealing and hoarding) relation with the earth and her creatures. From that severely imbalanced power relation, all others come.
Humans are causing life on Earth to vanish
Trading overseas has increased by 900% since the start of the post-industrial era and the extraction of living…
Cultural norms embodied by mostly white human beings who live on or near natural areas directly impact all the other living beings and ecosystems around them. RDP’s cultural work efforts recognize that healthy human cultural norms help keep natural resource management also healthy.
Next in the Series: “The Proposal for Democratic Cultural Work in White Rural America”
Cathy B. Glenn, Ph.D. is an independent critical researcher, creative, and cultural worker whose areas of expertise are power, culture, and change. Formerly Private Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, she is now Educational Content Director and Developer for The Relational Democracy Project. She spent 5 years functionally outside capitalist demands, and it changed her fundamentally as a human being.
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